To talk about my first Christmas turkey, we need to talk about my bà nội and ông nội. They were my paternal grandparents, and Christmas dinner almost always ended up at their bungalow in the suburb of Brossard, Que.
The holidays of my childhood were a gathering of cousins, aunts and uncles from Scarborough and Mississauga, Ont., Ottawa and Newark, N.J. Leading the meal prep was my bà nội, and she had her work cut out for her.
We could always expect steaming bowls of phở, the quintessential Vietnamese beef noodle soup; platters of gỏi thom, a tangy slaw made from lotus root, shrimp and cabbage; racks of pâté chaud, buttery puff pastries encasing golf-ball-sized servings of seasoned ground pork; stacks of deep-fried spring rolls; and bags of shrimp chips that magically refilled.
Christmas dinner was always a feast.
Things changed after my ông nội passed away from complications with Parkinson’s in February 2015. My family decided it was easiest for my bà nội to sell her bungalow and move in with my aunt in Ottawa. Needless to say, Christmas 2015 was different. No long drive to Brossard. No hours of sitting in front of the TV as cousins duked it out on a Nintendo 64. No Christmas feast.
For many South Asian immigrant families, cooking for someone isn’t only about satiating the stomach — it’s an act of kindness from the heart. Not having that big meal and being under the shadow of my grandfather’s death left us a little lost.
Perhaps that’s why my dad, armed with limited culinary knowledge, started a new tradition in the form of a pre-prepared, 5.5-pound stuffed turkey breast from the grocery store.
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I don’t remember any Vietnamese dishes that Christmas. If there were, they definitely took a back seat to canned chicken noodle soup and instant mashed potatoes, along with gravy and cranberry sauce from the tin. Purists would have scoffed at our turkey dinner, but we scarfed down everything, feeling the love of my father as he took on his mother’s role of Christmas chef.
My father is retired now, and his cooking skills have advanced well past opening tins and reheating. Handwriting recipes on scraps of paper, he’s always the first in the kitchen and the last to leave. He spends his time perfecting everything from apple turnovers to you tiao quẩy, Chinese fritters fried to golden perfection. Just not the Christmas turkey. That’s fallen on my plate.
Brian Trinh is a writer in Toronto and a former assistant digital editor at Broadview.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s December 2021 issue with the title “Our First Turkey.”
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